On the Asiatic Brethren, Part 3 - The Founding Fathers of the Order
So here we are - having returned safely from our excursions into Sabbatianism and Frankism. Maybe let’s pause for a moment and reflect. Considering everything we learned about these two heretical currents within Jewry, let’s look at a simple question: If the teachings of any secret society or magical order had been heavily influenced by either or both of them, through which characteristics could we recognise such influence?
In essence: what would be the marks on any occult order that would allow us to assume a strong influence of Sabbatianism or Frankism respectively? Well, here is a short overview and with that a brief summary of what we discussed during Part 1 and 2:
Now, if for a moment we broadened our view to look beyond the order of the Asiatic Brethren, we might already be able to see how significant the heritage of these currents is on our modern day occult tradition? Take a moment to compare many of the practices and rituals in modern occult movements or even in Crowley’s own work with the above list?
The most stunning resemblance - in terms of its sexual affinity as well as its emphasise on turning spirit into flesh - I can think of are the works of Austin Osamn Spare, a genuine wunderkind of 20th century magic. Allow me to share a quote from his Logomachy of Zos might highlight this strange connection:
III. The Founding Fathers of the Asiatic Brethren
With this let's return to the order of the Asiatic Brethren - and identify their actual origins, teachings and - if any - the mark they left on our Western Mystery Tradition. In order to answer these questions we shall concentrate on four main aspects. The first of which will be the focus of our current chapter:
- Origins: Who were the most influential founding members of the order?
- Teachings: What were the actual teachings of the order as we know them today?
- Sources: Which trusted sources do we know influenced the orders’ teachings?
We already introduced two of the leading men of the order during the first chapter, Hans Heinrich von Ecker und Eckhofen (HHEE) as well as Franz Thomas von Schönfeld. However, when we compare the various, scattered contemporary German sources that have come upon us as well as more recent research on the order, several other important members stand out. The below chart provides an condensed overview of the five most influential members of the Asiatic Brethren (AB) - legendary or authentic (ref. Katz 1983 / von Goue, 1805).
Now, it needs to be called out that by no means were these five men also the most powerful members of the order. Quite the opposite: most of them had lost much of their wealth and social power before joining (Katz, p.241). Still, quickly after the foundation of the order these men were able to attract a significant amount of followers in various European power centres of the time. This is an even greater accomplishment if we recognise that the order throughout its relatively short life-time always remained isolated from other and more established Freemasons’ organisations. Lodges of the Asiatic Brethren have been confirmed for Vienna - where their original headquarter was - Prague, Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt and Innsbruck. Equally, due to member lists found amongst the order’s papers memberships of several powerful potentates of the time are confirmed, the most influential of whom certainly was the future King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II (Katz, p.253).
Like any good occult order the AB strived to provide a founding myth leading back into an ancient lineage. This was particularly important as the order had been established without any support from either the side of other Freemasons’ nor Rosicrucian organisations of the time.
Moreover, as we see highlighted in the order’s name, the aim was to establish a particularly strong connection to Asian occult traditions. The term ‘Asia’ in this context, however, needs explanation: It is not a reference to the landmass we have come to call Asia today. Yet instead it is a vague reference to Asia-Minor at best. Thus it indicates a tradition that doesn’t stem from the European mainland, but from the Orient instead. Secondly, the term aimed to function as a name-tag which in the 18th century marked a tradition that was equally - or possibly more - ancient than the established Roman Catholic and Jewish orthodoxy.
The plot of the Asiatic Brethren’s founding myth is relatively straight forward: According to the order the original teachings were passed on to them by a Franciscan monk called Justus. His born second name was believed to be Bischoff (engl: bishop), a common German name indicating ancient religious ties of a family. Justus had spent several years living in the Orient, in Jerusalem in particular. Here he came into contact with kabbalistic circles, began to immerse himself deeply into the study of their teachings and ultimately managed to receive original manuscripts from these circles. It is on this material that much of the order’s ceremony and teaching were built and expanded later on.
As part of their foundation myth they also remembered the name of the kabbalistic teacher from whom Justus had received the original material. His name was Azariah and he was said to be a member of a kabbalistic sect himself, possibly of Sabbatean origins. Due to his strong devotion to Kabbalah he handed over management of his daily business to his sons and became an emissary of the sect, traveling from city to city to expand and strengthen the sect’s network. This is how he got to know Justus and despite the latter’s European and more importantly Christian background began to unveil the teachings of the Kabbalah to him (Katz, p.241f). — Of course not all of these details can be verified today. However, historic evidence of the person of Justus are sufficiently strong to erase most doubt about his existence (Katz, p.242 / von Goue, Leipzig 1805, p.419).
We will not repeat here what we have said in the first chapter about the Bavarian officer, Hans Heinrich von Ecker und Eckhoffen and how he founded the actual order in 1781. However, it should be highlighted here that Ecker himself explained he had been introduced to the order in 1774 by a friend, Georg Hasting. According to the former at this point the order had already been established for 38 years in a loose form after some of the original brethren had decided to move to Europe (Frick, p.457). -- We will also not repeat again the background of Franz Thomas von Schönfeld who contributed as a founding member of the order and developed much of its constitutional teachings, structure and ceremony (Katz, p.248). As far as we can tell, it was down to the work of this original triumvirate that the basic and distinct tenet of the AB were shaped and designed. We will take a closer look at them in the next chapters. Before that, however, there is one more founding father of the order we need to go get to know. His name is Ephraim Joseph Hirschfeld.
It is with Hirschfeld that we encounter the true prodigy who helped to elevate the AB above the crowd of other mystical orders and secret societies of the time. In his liminal essay from 1962 Gershom Scholem was the first one to rediscover this ‘forgotten mystic of the age of enlightenment`. Unfortunately as Scholem died briefly after publishing this essay he never was given the chance to finish his planned book on Hirschfeld (Davidowicz, p.135). However, in a nutshell here is what we know about him and his influence on the AB:
Hirschfeld was born as a son to a Jewish cantor in Karlsruhe who held considerable knowledge in talmudic and kabbalistic studies (Katz, p.245). It was also Hirschfeld’s father who already had aimed to create and strengthen his family ties to several Christian families of noble decent. As a protege of these powerful allies the young Hirschfeld was allowed to visit a higher school and study medicine initially.
Early on in his life we find him working as a teacher and accountant for several aristocratic families, such as ultimately the famous 19th century banker David Friedländer. In 1782 Hirschfeld relocated to Innsbruck where his momentous encounter with the founder of the AB, Hans Heinrich von Ecker und Eckhoffen (HHEE) took place. The two of them quickly formed strong bonds and became close friends, repeatedly traveling together across Germany and Austria on the quest to spread their new-formed order. Contemporary sources actually called them“a pair of originals who ran the risk of mutually ruining each other.” (Davidowicz, p.139)
Different to many other Jews of the time who aimed for access to Christian secret societies and a place on the social parquet, Hirschfeld never converted to Christianity and always held on to his Jewish roots. Still after receiving permission to join the order of the Asiatic Brethren, it was him who gradually took over the work of Franz Thomas von Schönfeld and - as we will see - began to put his kabbalistic mark especially on the teaching of the higher grades of the order.
Surprisingly, in 1790 we find Hirschfeld being banned from the order. The reasons for this event remain somewhat in the dark due to papers relating to a law court that only have been rediscovered partially so far (Davidowicz, p.146). However, it seems relatively proven that the root causes for both his eventual exclusion from the order as well as his temporary imprisonment were public conflicts with his former close friend and ally, HHEE himself. The conflict seemed to revolve around two main aspects: (1) unfulfilled financial promises towards Hirschfeld as well as (2) a lack of respect for his work and increasing discrimination due to his Jewish background.
Now, what is particularly interesting about this conflict is Hirschfeld’s opinion on Kabbala as he expressed it in public documents as part of the related law court. He argues very confidently that Kabbala as such was not based on any particular religion, but rather formed an open path for anybody interested - be they Muslim, Catholic or Jewish - to transcend the limitations of one's own religious tradition and to gain access to “the one and only, true, pure and all embracing religion.” (Katz, p.267)
Now, let’s pause for a moment and consider why this is such a significant quote for our Western tradition? Well, most of the mystical orders founded in the 19th and early 20th century that form our more recent mystical heritage were deeply syncretic by nature. While several of them maintained a relatively Christian facade, their teachings converged in so far as they assumed one true source of divine wisdom and teaching which was located beyond the confines of any particular religion. This is why Eliphas Levi, Papus, Mathers, etc. were obsessed with ‘piecing the puzzle’ together and felt at liberty to take elements of traditions from all cultures and histories of our past to unblock their magical paths. Pragmatic syncretism was the perceived key to ‘reconstruct’ (or invent?) entire systems of magic and bring them to life again.
It is in light of this that the work of Ephraim Josef Hirschfeld assumes its most important meaning: At the turn of the 19th century we find a kabbalistic Jew becoming one of the earliest pioneers of this occult spirit. While Western society was obsessed with the rational mind and pushing through the barriers of the past into the new Age of Enlightenment, at the same time we discover in Hirschfeld the emergence of a current that used this momentum to pave its way into a completely different direction. ‘Enlightenment’ for Hirschfeld was to recognise the false and artificial limitations each religious tradition confined itself to. ‘Enlightenment’ for him meant to break free from all of these man-made containers altogether - and to push through to the actual, unifying mystical truth behind each of these belief systems.
That this spiritual attempt obviously was flawed again in itself should not diminish its general accomplishment. Not everything in Kabbala will still work and function if you take away the Jewish context and current underneath it; not everything in the teachings of Paracelsus, Jacob Böhme or Ignatius of Loyola will still be coherent and touch your soul, if you a deviate too far from the paths each of them had carved out. In fact, much of magic, mystic and the occult simply will become muddy and all mixed up if you think you can hold their essences in your hands without accepting the particular vessels they were taken from. However - and this is the significant thing to remember - at the time Hirschfeld introduced his revolutionary ideas into the higher grades of the Asiatic Brethren most of the liquid essence had been lost over the adoration of the man-made vessels.
But let's return to our almost forgotten founding father. In 1792 we find Hirschfeld imprisoned in Schleswig, excluded from the AB and deprived not only of the fruits of his work but more importantly even of the public recognition. The aristocratic potentates who protected him for most of his life had either died of age or turned away from him.
Suddenly, historic documents tell us, one Isaac ben Joseph, a leading head of the order appears in the city where Hirschfeld is held captive. The order’s brethren in the area who had heard about ben Joseph in the past, believed him to be another of their legendary founders rather than a real person - and so were shocked to see him alive. ben Joseph meets the authorities who had ordered the imprisonment of Hirschfeld, pays the significant amount of 550 thaler to free him of his asserted debts and gets him released from prison. Together they leave Schleswig and neither of them should ever return.
In May of the same year both of them reappear in Strasbourg where they depart. Hirschfeld returns to Germany and his home city of Karlsruhe. Until the end of his life this is where he resides; as well as in Offenbach very close to the court of Jacob Frank. Hirschfeld continues on his life’s mission and in 1796 publishes the first Jewish-Kabbalistic book in German language ever, 'Biblisches Organon oder Realübersetzung der Bibel mit der mystischen Begleitung und kritischen Anmerkungen'. It remains one of the rarest German language occult books until today.
However, above all Hirschfeld never stopped waiting for his brethren to keep their promise - and to allow him to return to his order. When the news reached him that most of the lodges of the order had ceased to exist, he even took efforts to re-establish it himself. He remained without success and died in 1820.
Which leaves us with one last question. Who was the mysterious brother who appeared out of nowhere when Hirschfeld was imprisoned in Schleswig? Well, it seems Hirschfeld after all wasn’t without any allies from his former order. Isaac ben Joseph was just another name Franz Thomas von Schönfeld assumed while traveling from one adventure to the next all across Europe. Hirschfeld and Schönfeld - the two authentic kabbalistic scholars within the AB - first had been rivals within the order, both aiming to establish their authority and control over the order’s teachings. At that time Schönfeld succumbed, Hirschfeld prevailed and the former had to leave the order. What drove Schönfeld years later to support his former contender, to pay for him and to travel together with him subsequently, is what we do not know.
We do know, however, that together in Strasbourg they finally got to meet another mystic whose work had a strong influence on both of them and therefore on teachings of the AB. This was the 'unknown philosopher' and disciple of one famous Martinez de Pasqually, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. But I guess we are getting into another adventure already. Enough for now.
Let’s save the secrets of Pasqually and St.Martin and how they influenced the order of the Asiatic Brethren for our next chapter.
: : to be continued : :
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- August Siegfried von Goue, ’Asiatische Brüder’, p.410-434, in: Das Ganze aller geheimen Ordensverbindungen, Leipzig 1805
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- Wouter Haanegraaff, Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, Brill Academic Publishing 2006